Advice for federal agencies on social media records management [REPORT]

One of the risks and rewards for the use of Web 2.0 that came up in the July hearing on “government 2.0” technology in the House of Representatives had nothing to do with privacy, secrecy, security or embarrassment. Instead, it was a decidedly more prosaic concern, and one that is no surprise to anyone familiar with governmental institutions: record keeping. And no, this is not another story about how the Library of Congress is archiving the world’s tweets.

IBM’s Business of Government Center has released a new report on social media (PDF) records management, focusing on some best practices for harried federal employees faced with rapidly expanding troves of tweets, Facebook status updates, blog posts or wikis. For those keeping track, 22 of 24 agencies now, at the minimum, have a Facebook presence.

If you’re interested in the evolution of social media in government, a lot of what’s in here won’t be new to you. If not, the report provides a useful framework for why using social media presents headaches for federal records keeping and quite a few best practices and suggestions for mitigating them. As the preamble to the report allows, “this report does not solve the many challenges it identifies. However, it serves as a useful guide for federal managers attempting to use social media to engage citizens while meeting the statutory requirement to preserve historical records for future generations.”

If you’re still wondering what social media is at this point in 2010, Dr. Patricia Franks, the author of the report and a professor at San Jose State University in California, considers exactly that, with judicious references to experts. She offers a number of definitions and then provides her own summary: “‘social media’ encompasses a number of emerging technologies that facilitate interaction between individuals and groups both inside and outside an organization. The best return on an agency’s investment of resources in social media is realized when the goal of the social media initiative is clearly identified and clearly related to the agency’s core mission.”

And that last point is particularly interesting, and frames where much of the federal government stands at the end of 2010 well. The observation was preceded by an apt observation sourced by “insiders”: that the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive created a “Wild West” atmosphere around social media. In that content “eager individuals, embracing the freedom to innovate, moved quickly to use social media both within their departments and agencies and with the outside world. Early government enthusiasts of social media endeavored to establish a presence without first identifying a goal. Only recently have those responsible for social media initiatives begun to ask what needs to be accomplished before selecting the appropriate tool for the task.”

Some new media directors and communication staff have been aligning tools with mission for some time. Others have simply set up the accounts and then pushed updates to them. From what this correspondent hears around Washington, that “Wild West” is getting civilized, with this report representing the latest push to absorb social media into the business of government, replete with established policies, procedures and, yes, reporting standards.

“It’s not OK just to check a box and set up a Facebook page anymore,” said Cammie Croft, director of new media a the Department of Energy, last week at a forum on citizen engagement. “You have to have an idea for what you want to accomplish.” That reflects what Booz Allen social media strategist Steve Radick wrote last month, when he observed that the “new media director position is a means to an end.”

Speaking at the same event, Jack Holt, senior strategist for emerging media at the Department of Defense, reflected on how federal social media use has evolved from “no way, no how” to “accepted procedure” to “standard operating procedure.”

“These are not new tools we need to learn how to use,” he said. “It’s a new environment in which we need to live.”

As the year comes to an end, in other words, the federal government is learning how to live in the same new media world its citizens are grappling with comprehending, where “We the People” has newfound resonance. Yet again, we’re all in it together.

For more on the report, Brian Kalish has a full writeup of social media and agency records management over at NextGov.

Understanding time and place is crucial for government use of social media

Does government “get social media?” As always, it depends which government you are talking about. This morning, Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio posted about when government doesn’t get social media, in the context of new guidance on the use of social media in federal workplaces. Specifically:

On July 27, the US Office of Special Counsel published a document with Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Social Media and the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act of 1939 is a US federal law preventing federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities.

The FAQ looks at how to comply with the act when engaging on social media, with particular reference, but not limited, to Facebook and Twitter.

The basic advice is that if a federal employee accesses social media from a federal workplace and during working hours, while on duty, then the provisions of the act would apply.

The OSC memo doesn’t mean that government as a whole “doesn’t get social media,” of course. Have you followed @NASA recently? It does show that the lawyers there haven’t quite caught up to the always-on, mobile workforce. After my discussions with people in government, I’ve taken away a sense that many of the government employees themselves are quite aware of those risks and are being careful. Some will make mistakes. Some already have.

Other people have expressed frustration with this update of an old law (1935) for the social networking age. As I’ve read through the coverage, the extension on restrictions for government employees on the job didn’t strike me as unreasonable, at least with respect to previous technology. Would a government employee use a work email account to send out political messages? Or would she make calls in support of a party? Or post banners for a political party or rally on the office bulletin board? Would he loudly exclaim in a meeting in excitement that a favored candidate won a primary?

Likely not.

DiMaio’s analysis is sound, where he recognizes the permanent blurring of the boundaries between work and play, particularly for elected officials, high profile private sector officials and (of course) entertainment figures stalked by the tabloids.

On the latter count, however, the recent Supreme Court decision regarding electronic privacy over government-issued communications gear (the infamous ‘sexting’ case) re-affirmed that it does indeed matter where an update, txt or email is sent from. Any major enterprise can and does place expectations for behavior for the use of its IT equipment in the workplace, or off, particularly with respect to pornography, streaming video, P2P applications or social media. Many CIOs still choose to block public access to such platforms, for a variety of reasons. That’s changing slowly, not least because of smartphone access, but also because many organizations are shifting to risk management as opposed to risk avoidance to address social media and compliance.

I must, however, be blunt in my disagreement with his statement that “time and place are irrelevant on social media.” The growth of geolocation and location-based social networking, like Foursquare, Gowalla and now Facebook Places imply otherwise. Those services are ALL about time and place. Twitter too, in large part, in terms of its real-time ebb and flow around events, particularly disasters or breaking news. The utility of geolocation in social media was especially evident in discussions earlier this month in Washington, where the Emergency Social Data Summit highlighted the role of social media during crises.

Even a layman, without the toolset of a digital forensics team to track down IP addresses, could see where a federal employee might be if geolocation is turned on.

DiMaio is right that a tweet, update, like or link shared on a government employee’ social media about a partisan topic would be an issue, regardless of where ever and whenever it was made. As we feel our way through the meaning of the hyper-charged media environment of the moment, that’s a good lesson to take away. Be careful mixing politics and Facebook.